As bombs fell in Iraq and dusk fell on New Haven on Jan. 19, 1991, students congregated on Beinecke Plaza to express their outrage over the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq. A smaller group of students, including Simone Albeck ’93, formed a semicircle around a microphone, taking turns addressing the crowd.
“I said I was horrified by the bombing,” Albeck said. “I remember feeling a lot of strength from the group. It was really empowering. It was awesome.”
Last Saturday, Albeck, who now lives in Massachusetts, continued her anti-war activism.
In Boston on Saturday, Albeck said she joined the “rivers of people” flooding Boston Common in protest of a second war against Iraq. But Albeck said that this time, feelings are more intense.
“I had made a sign. My first instinct was ‘I’m going to tape this to my front and walk to the T.’ And then I thought, ‘I don’t want to get my ass kicked.’ So I carried the sign. There are a lot of very strong views about this war. There is heat. There is energy,” she said.
Despite surface parallels between the Gulf War and the current war in Iraq, the memories of faculty and alumni indicate major differences in campus response.
History professor Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, who is working on a book about the impact of race, gender, and war on Yale, said there is no analogy between the first Gulf War and the current one.
“It’s different in almost every way,” he said. “[In the first Gulf War] there was some dissent, but not a great deal. The issue seemed to be clear: aggression by one state against another sovereign state. It was a clear violation of international law.”
Beyond issues of diplomacy, the logistics of the war itself left little room for dissent, Smith said. The military phase of the war was short, lasting only 43 days, and there were few American casualties. President George H. W. Bush had lined up extensive international support, and his national approval ratings skyrocketed after the low-cost, quick victory, Smith said.
History professor Donald Kagan, then the dean of Yale College, did not recall student protests against Operation Desert Storm.
“I have absolutely no recollection of any activity, which suggests to me there wasn’t any activity to speak of,” he said.
But for students seeing war for the first time, the memories were different.
“It was shock more than anything,” Daryl Daniels MED ’91 said. “The Cold War had ended. The Vietnam War was over. We all sort of thought war was over and all of a sudden we were in a war again. We were young during Vietnam, and except for a few small skirmishes, this was the first time we had really seen war.”
Daniels said he particularly remembers students’ amazement at the pictures being broadcast by CNN. During the first days of the war, students gathered in the residential college TV rooms to watch live coverage of the events.
Albeck said she remembers seeing signs and fliers posted around campus in protest to the war, and said there were several on-campus rallies. Students organized a five-hour teach-in. According to the Yale Daily News, seven Yale students were among those arrested for blockading a federal building on Orange Street.
But a Yale Daily News poll of 533 undergraduates three days into the war found that 52 percent of the student body was in favor of the war, while 36 percent was opposed and 12 percent was undecided. Students who spoke out against the war were in the minority, biology professor Robert Wyman said.
In response to this war, students have been very quiet, too, Kagan said. But Kagan added that he was surprised at the number of pro-war activists that have come forward.
Smith said certain similarities between this war and the Vietnam War suggest that this war may drag on longer than anticipated.
“It’s guerrilla warfare, and the enemy is not clear,” he said. As emotional attachment to victory increases, reaction and activism may become stronger, he said.
Wyman said he is particularly discouraged by the absence of a strong response to this war because the issues involved are more complex than they were during Operation Desert Storm. Of the 16 professors who spoke at a 1991 teach-in, Wyman was the only professor to support the war.
Still, he said, he remembers that no one challenged his views.
Wyman, who said he encouraged Yale President Richard Levin to hold last week’s Iraq teach-in, said he was disappointed with the event. He said the teach-in was “trivialized” from the start, and failed to promote dialogue between the opposing sides.
“The students want to know whether this is right or wrong, whether America is the savior or the devil-doer. Once the war starts, everything else is boring,” he said.
Although she herself was vocal, Albeck said she did not have a good sense of the opinions of her peers.
“We were 20 years old,” she said. “Nobody really knew how to talk about what they were feeling.”
Now, a decade after the first Gulf War, former students said they have experienced a change in perspective.
“It’s kind of sad to think about, but I’ve become less idealistic,” said Daniels, who is currently serving as a doctor in the U.S. Navy. “I tend to think a lot more about the nuts and bolts of what’s happening in the world. It’s one thing to believe in something, but I’ve learned to ask, ‘Do I have any answers myself?’ and if not, I’ve learned to be less critical of what leaders are doing.”
It is just this type of change that worries Wyman. According to Wyman, at last week’s teach-in, history professor Paul Kennedy pointed out that there was stronger congressional opposition to the first Gulf War — when 47 senators voted against authorizing war — than there has been with the current war.
“What bothered [Kennedy] and what bothers me is how supine Congress has become,” Wyman said. “We’ve lost that vehement debate that should precede a war. That’s really the most worrisome thing — how the vibrancy of our democracy has died in between these wars. Now, no one is willing to stand up to the patriots.”
For Albeck, being willing to stand up to national leadership has never been a problem.
“My opinion about death by a bomb exploding on one’s head is equally horrified,” she said. “I’m still terrified by the violence of war.”
Even in times of war, she found herself facing a common Yalie plight: being overextended.
“I would get so incensed: ‘Oh my god, we’re dropping bombs and it’s my country and it’s supposedly in my name and I don’t want that,'” she said. “But there are daily tasks that need to be done. I remember feeling I could either be a really involved, outraged protester, or I could try to do what I was supposed to and be a student.”
So which did she do?
“I did both.”